Warning: watching The Ten Commandments of La Vida Loca might make you feel like a total whitey (if you’re…ah….white of course). I found myself tapping into my senior-citizen-at-the-movies self, i.e: “Wait- who’s that guy? Is that the brother, or the cousin? Why does he want to kill that guy?” And so on.
The good news is that the character descriptions on the Ten Commandments’ page within Filmaka – a site dedicated to monthly short film and documentary competitions – help bring you up to speed. Each of Mexican filmmaker Luis Bernal Salazar’s Ten Commandments is packed with narrative, smatterings of violence, and ample tattooed skin to cover the entirety of a Southcentral LA city block.
The stories consist of rather loose interpretations of the biblical Ten Commandments (and there are indeed ten episodes), but unlike David’s Wain comedic rendition in the The Ten, these are dark micro-dramas whose portrayal of gang life fluctuates between glorification and condemnation, and mostly ends up somewhere in between.
The series certainly isn’t a parody, though the episode titles might have you believing otherwise. The street adaptations include such profferings as “Thou shalt steal,” “Thou shalt fornicate,” “thou shalt murder,” and my personal favorite, “Thou shalt not covet thy hommie’s bitch.” For real.
In essence, Ten Commandments is Salazar’s own spin on life within MS-13, aka Mara Salvatrucha, an actual hardcore international gang comprised mostly of Central Americans that originated in LA in the 1980s.
In Salazar’s Mexican incarnation, older brother Gustavo has formed a branch of the gang – after getting deported back to Mexico from LA – by recruiting young members in his hometown of Chiapas. His younger brother Luis is now in the process of joining, which includes such familiar hazing rituals as getting beat up by your future ‘family’ and being ordered to have intercourse with a sacrificial collaborator…you know, that kind of thing. Oh, and this sacrificial woman is not to be confused with “The Bitch,” a young woman who aggressively seduces the gang leader and his next heir depending on her whim, setting off further in-fighting and making things rather complicated for the viewer.
The main characters speak Spanish peppered with an occasional English from the streets staccato that feels a bit overdone at times, but doesn’st take away from their high intimidation factors.
Episode 9 (‘Thou Shalt Fornicate’) gets thoroughly surreal, with the inclusion of a real chimpanzee that first chases a future rape victim (not by the chimp), and then, as if he’s their mascot, hugs one of the gangsters.
The undercurrent of the entire narrative revolves around avenging the death of Luis and Gustavo’s parents, though the brothers approach this vengeance from different angles. There are many climactic moments throughout the series, but because they usually involve someone, or someone’s parents, almost getting killed, it’s hard to know where to invest your concern.
Salazar must be given credit for squeezing so much consequence into episodes as short as 90 seconds, while cinematographer Rodrigo Lopez Aldana does solid work in black and white, building images that reflect the darkness of this gang world. Just be sure to bring your Urban Dictionary de Español, along with a more clued-in friend.